Four metal points on the roof of the sprawling, single-storey interpretive centre at Wanuskewin Heritage Park stick up like bison horns in the distance as you head east toward the park, a 15-minute drive from downtown Saskatoon. These four points represent the four directions, four stages of life—infancy, adolescence, adult and elder—and the four seasons.
In the Cree language, “wanuskewin” means “seeking peace of mind.” The landscape brings a sense of calm and peace as you approach the interpretive centre, and as the morning sun bounces off the poles of the teepee skeletons that adorn the entrance road, and the prairie rolls out on either side, before dropping off into the Opimihaw Creek valley, and the name’s origin becomes evident.
“The architectural design of the building also represents a bison,” says senior interpreter Bonnie Masuskapoe, who leads guided tours of the park year-round. “The bison is a big part of our history as prairie people and we continue to honour it today.”
So much so, that Wanuskewin plans to reintroduce a herd of bison to the park in the near future, possibly as early as 2019.
Set on 240 hectares of land, this non-profit cultural and historical centre is a National Historic Site of Canada representing 6,000 years of the history of the indigenous people of the Northern Plains. Also, the country’s longest-running archaeological dig, which started in 1982, is ongoing here—camp sites, buffalo jumps, teepee rings and artifacts such as pottery fragments, projectile points and more have been discovered at the site.
Walking trails cross the Opimihaw Creek valley and patches of indigenous plants, shrubs and grasses dot the landscape. Wild rose and silver buffaloberry send roots deep into the ground to withstand the prairie wind, frigid winters and hot, arid summers. Pick up the Path of The People trail just outside the interpretive centre and visit the Opimihaw bison jumps, then connect with the Circle of Harmony trail, a 2.5-kilometre loop that edges the South Saskatchewan River and leads to the 1,500-year-old Wanuskewin Medicine Wheel, the most northerly in the world. Made of stones and taking the shape of a large wagon wheel, “spokes” extend from the centre with the cardinal points being most prominent. Believed to be a sacred monument, elders and archaeologists have agreed not to excavate it, choosing instead to let it remain a mystery—though it’s been suggested it could have been part of healing ceremonies, an astronomical device or a marker of time.
Inside the interpretive centre, visitors can erect a petite Cree-style teepee in the centre’s circle area. Smaller teepees were common before the arrival of the horse, when dogs were used to haul them between camps. Register for hide-tanning, flintknapping (making spear and arrow points), pottery-making and bannock-baking workshops.
For visitors who want to extend the experience, from May to September there’s also the option to book an overnight stay in the park’s traditional, outdoor teepee village.